This is a long overdue update from our end! We were awarded a grant in the 2008 News Challenge for developing low-cost technologies for community radio stations in India. We have come a long way since then. Our systems are now in use in 9 stations in India, and growing steadily. But we have also realized that there is a lot more that needs to be done to push the community radio movement in India. Thankfully the Knight Foundation has given us considerable flexibility to tackle various problems as and when they arise. Let me first give you a context, and then tell you more about what exactly we are doing, the challenges of operating in this space, and our future plans.
In late 2006, the Government of India announced a revised policy on community radio wherein non-profit organizations were allowed to set up radio stations. This was expected to kick off community radio in India in a big way. The growth has been steady since then, though arguably somewhat slow. There are now some 20 NGO-led community radio stations, and a handful of stations set up by educational institutions which also do a lot of community service.
Setting up and operating a community radio station can be quite complex though. The licensing process is twisted — it can take almost a year to get a license! Many organizations have in fact given up the idea of setting up a radio station because of the long drawn out and painful bureaucratic process. Cost of setup is another issue. A basic radio station can be set up in less than $10,000, including the cost of transmitter, a few computers, a simple studio, and an initial training of content acquisition and production. But so far in India it has mostly been large NGOs that have set up stations, and have typically spent upwards $25,000 in studio setup. Most of these costs are covered through project grants for which the NGOs apply.
After the station is setup, the operations are complicated too. Cost is surely an issue, more so because one-time grants run out and the stations are expected to become financially sustainable over time. But this is hard, given that advertising in remote rural locations does not have many buyers. Some stations do get contributions from the community, but this is again rare because the stations have to first prove their worth to the community. Staying engaged with the community is the goal of a community radio station anyway, but it takes time and a lot of learning. The station staff need training on how to produce programs, ideas on community engagement, etc, all of which have steep learning curves.
Where do we fit in? We stated three challenges in our Knight proposal, and all three of them still stand out:
**1. Technology: **Radio stations need to be improved in low-cost ways to make community engagement seamless. With the wide proliferation of mobile phones, this means that the broadcast medium of radio needs to be enhanced with bi-directional communication through mobile phones. This is exactly what our system does — it enables a seamless integration between radio and telephony, so that through a single console the radio station operator can make and receive phone calls, conference among multiple callers, put calls on air, archive them, send and receive SMS messages, and run polls, question and answer sessions, announcements, etc. In addition, our system also enables content management and scheduling to handle day-to-day operations of typical community radio stations.
**2. Financial sustainability: **A single radio station has too small a catchment area to be attractive for any advertisers. But a network of radio stations can still be potentially marketed to companies interested in rural areas, or even to different government departments that want to disseminate timely information on vaccination camps or employment opportunities in the area. We have therefore worked on a connectivity module in our system that periodically syncs up with a central server on the Internet to collect messages for broadcast, or report feedback. Feedback is a crucial part of any advertising or information dissemination campaign. How many people called in response to the information? Were there any grievance reports on government projects? How often was the advertisement broadcast? Such statistics are also automatically collected and shipped back.
**3. Content training: **A few organizations in India are training community radio stations on content production and community engagement techniques. But there is lots of variation. Some stations are trained in producing informational programs through narratives and interviews of experts, while some others produce very interesting and engaging content in enacting stories in drama formats. Both these stations can learn from each other by listening to content, asking questions, and giving feedback. We are building such a social networking platform for the community radio staff. This will not be a web-based system though, because many staff are not comfortable with the Internet or with typing out messages. We will build this as a voice based feedback system instead.
The technology is ready and we call it GRINS, standing for the Gramin Radio Inter Networking System. We are now talking to a few large brands and to media buying agencies to get advertising for our network of radio stations. And we are beginning to build the content sharing and social networking platform as an add-on to GRINS.
There are many challenges we are facing though. We have been talked about sustainability problems that the community radio stations are facing, but we face sustainability issues ourselves! How can we make money to cover further development and support costs? There are a number of revenue streams we have had in mind.
**1. Commissions on advertising: **The numbers look attractive in theory, but advertisers seem to be interested only once we have a substantial footprint. Furthermore, the footprint is highly fragmented, with a few stations in the north, a few in the south, with no contiguity. This is not easily tackled because the total number of community radio stations is itself quite small, and GRINS can be installed only when a new community radio stations come up.
**2. Installation and training charges: **Four of our installations so far were pilot installations, while the rest were paid. And most of these were done through a reseller partnership we have with an FM transmitter manufacturer. We have also been trying to make direct sales but have not been very successful so far. There is an interesting reason for this. The way NGOs work is through projects — they put up a project proposal consisting of a capital expenditure and a recurring operational expenditure. This means that for existing stations that have been running since a while, the cost for a GRINS box is to be borne out of their operational budget. This is clearly hard. It is much easier to sell through resellers so that the cost can be absorbed in the initial setup package itself. Having realized this, we are now actively trying to form reseller partnerships. We are also participating in commuinty radio awareness workshops that are being organized in a number of places in India, so that more and more NGOs come to know about GRINS and contact us when they are ready to set up their station.
**3. Commercial radio stations: **India is about to announce commercial radio licenses for small towns. GRINS is perfect for this segment. It is not high-end such as Synergy, RCS, and other radio automation systems that want to do syndicated broadcasts across a network of stations. The set of features which GRINS provides are exactly suitable for standalone stations that want to form closer ties with their listeners. Even in the higher-end segment, the features are somewhat complementary to that of other radio automation systems, telephony and SMS integration being the key here. We are therefore actively forming partnerships in the commercial segment as well.
There are clearly challenges in all these avenues, but the good thing is that we are discovering the problems, and working around them accordingly.
This brings us to the present, where we are working fervently on supporting the community radio movement in India. We will continue to do that, but we are realizing that given the complexities in setting up and running community radio stations, large scale impact will only come after a while. We are all an impatient bunch of people though! There is so much that local media can fix — corruption in public services, awareness on health and sanitation, a new means of livelihood… And community radio is not the only medium.
We are running an interesting experiment in a slum colony in East Delhi, using voice and photographs to improve the delivery of public services. The idea here is again to technologically enable a local media service for the people, through which they can put pressure on elected officials to improve public services such as sanitation, road conditions, fairness in water and electricity billing, etc. In these slum colonies for example, we have seen playgrounds that have been converted into garbage dumps, community toilets without any water taps, overflowing drains, broken pavements, and even worse. We have set up a toll-free number which community members can call to leave complaints. We also collect photos and videos in the same manner. Our plan then is to play these recordings over a loudspeaker rolled through the slum colony, to enthuse more and more people to participate and pay attention to the messages. We will also build a simple tool to generate wall newspapers that can be printed and put up all around the colony. If this runs successfully, we will begin to invest a lot more time in popularizing the set of tools to other organizations so that they can set up their own local media hubs at practically zero cost.